July Top Story

Singapore American

December 2001



Changi Museum opens exhibit on Americans interned in WWII

The original Changi Chapel was built by WWII prisoners of war. Services are still held at this replica chapel outside the Changi Museum.


A new exhibit at the Changi Museum honors Americans who were interned in Singapore during World War II. The exhibit includes a Purple Heart and the U.S. flag, folded so that only the stars show in memory of those who were killed in action or died as a result of malnutrition or disease in prisoner-of-war camps. Drawings from a scrapbook compiled by U.S. Merchant Marine Stanley Willner during his imprisonment and a book by an American Methodist missionary, Tyler Thompson, are also in the exhibit. The most poignant memorabilia are from the "Lost Battalion," 903 survivors of the 131st Artillery and the USS Houston. Most of these men were sent to work on the "Death Railway," but some remained in Changi. Their families did not know they had survived until 1945.

Brown was a U.S. war correspondent

Also new at the museum are two videos, Death Becomes the Ghost and Battle of the Java Sea, in which 12 Allied ships, including four American destroyers, were lost. New books added to the museum library include Suez to Singapore, the story of an American CBS News correspondent who was aboard the HMS Repulse when it and the HMS Prince of Wales were torpedoed off the coast of Malaya in early 1942, and With Only the Will to Live. Accounts of Americans in Japanese Prison Camps 1941-1945.

The research for this project required a great deal of digging into out-of-print books and oral histories of survivors. Especially intriguing in this day of great interest in WWII was that no accurate records of Americans at Changi seemed to exist. In fact many people did not know there were any Americans at Changi, while others thought there were a few American "misfits," like those described in Clavell's novel, King Rat.

About 100 Americans were in Singapore prison camps for the full three-and-a-half years of war. However, many hundreds of American POWs spent several months in Changi, Sime Road and other camps in Singapore before they were sent as slave labor to Thailand, Burma or Japan.

The prisoners were from the U.S. Navy, Army, Marines and Merchant Marines who were captured after their ships were torpedoed or their planes were shot down. Of the 50-odd American civilians, five Methodist missionaries chose to stay behind. One woman was married to a British officer, who was also imprisoned. Others just did not escape in time, such as Bill Bailey of vaudeville fame.

A bit of background

The exhibit was organized by the American Association of Singapore and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board. The two organizations came together with a mutual desire to honor and pay tribute to Americans who were interned in Singapore during WWII.

Replica of a list of American prisoners released from Changi in 1945.

In the June edition of the Singapore American (SAN), the lead story was about two groups in our community who were investigating the American past in Singapore. One group focused on the war and the other on identifying the Bidadari Cemetery before the site is redeveloped for housing. The projects began to cross over. For instance, American civilians who died in Changi were buried in Bidadari.

 The projects grew beyond their initial boundaries into earlier history as new sources were discovered, such as 100 Years of Methodism in Singapore and the grave of the American said to be the archetype for Conrad's Lord Jim.

Both projects are ongoing and will continue to be covered in SAN.


Singapore American

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